India’s film scene seemingly exists in a different universe from that of the west. Few Bollywood movies ever make it over to these shores, and then only under the auspices of specialty theaters. This does a disservice to the stunning array of Bollywood films out there, many of which embrace spectacle as fiercely as Hollywood does (and with a great deal more passion to boot). They even venture into sci-fi blockbuster territory, as evinced by last year’s Enthiran the Robot and now Ra.One: a decidedly different take on popcorn entertainment that gives American newcomers a good sense of what we’ve been missing.
Ra.One isn’t as stunningly creative as Enthiran, content instead to cobble together elements of various different sci-fi films into some light-hearted fun. You can spot shades of Terminator 2 and Jackie Chan in its DNA, as well as Enthiran and more forgettable Hollywood fare like Virtuosity. The glue holding it all together is Shahrukh Khan, the biggest star in the world that no one here has heard of. Khan has demonstrated incredible range in his plethora of films, and while this entry doesn’t particularly test his skills, his undeniable presence keeps the entire endeavor on track.
He embraces a dual role: a stumblebum London video game designer named Sekher and his heroic creation, G.One, in a new game. Sekher believes in traditional stories where the hero always emerges triumphant, but his bored son Prateek (Armann Verma) wants a game with an unbeatable villain. So his father creates Ra.One to challenge him, as well as the less powerful G.One to stand against this new misanthrope. But wait! It just so happens that Sekher’s company is developing a new form of technology that allows virtual images to appear solid in the real world. One wacky accident later, Ra.One is loose on the streets… eager to eliminate the spunky young player who challenged him and armed with an array of very scary super powers. In response, Prateek brings G.One out of the computer to save the world.
Contrivances aside, the scenario makes for a lot of enjoyable mayhem, as Ra.One strides through the scenery in search of his foe and G.One does his utmost to stop him. Director Anubhav Sinha integrates some cool action scenes into the mix: derivative, but filled with energy and excitement. A spectacular car chase through London can stand with any of the James Bond films and the various mano a mano throwdowns display a flair for inventiveness that instantly endear them to us.
Ra.One undergirds it with a nice father-son story, as Prateek seeks acknowledgement first from his real father and then from the “proxy” G.One. Here, the T2 elements come closest to the surface, as the robotic construct struggles to understand humanity while keeping his young charge safe. Khan holds it together with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face: reveling in the more absurd elements while still honoring the emotional legitimacy of the characters. It provides some much needed humanity amid all the flash and sizzle, and makes the story’s broadness a question of passion rather than jokiness.
“Flash and sizzle” applies to more than just the special effects. Like most Bollywood movies, Ra.One includes a sprinkling of musical numbers featuring flashy costumes and expert choreography. Western audiences may find it a little jarring, but the film actually contains fewer dance numbers than normal. Blame for this likely lies with costar Kareena Kapoor, playing Shekhar’s wife. The woman can’t dance, and the simplified choreography doesn’t hide her fundamental clunkiness. Khan does much better, but like the drama, the dance moves don’t test his skills the way other movies have. (Check out this YouTube clip where he rocks it on top of a moving train):
Even so, the film’s fast pace and ostensible similarity to Western blockbusters make it an excellent introduction to Bollywood. It holds enough action and special effects to satisfy most genre fans, delivered in a style that comparatively few Americans are familiar with. As a departure from business as usual, Ra.One makes for a tasty treat. See it if you can find it near you; better yet, look for Enthiran when you’re done for a sense of how far India can take this genre. We’re not the only players in the game, and cinema is all the better for it.